2017 NFL season preview: Patriots in line for yet another AFC East title
For eight successive seasons, the New England Patriots have won the AFC East, an NFL record for consecutive division titles. That streak should continue in 2017 with the defending Super Bowl champions again having little in the way of divisional competition.
The New York Jets do not have a reliable quarterback or top receiver. The Buffalo Bills are in full rebuilding mode and the Miami Dolphins, New England's biggest challengers, have plenty of question-marks about their offense heading into the season.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill is done for the year with a knee injury. Miami signed Jay Cutler to replace Tannehill and he has looked good in limited preseason action. But that is just the preseason, so it remains to be seen if the turnover-prone Jay Cutler will rear his head when the games matter.
The Patriots had their own major injury this preseason with wide receiver Julian Edelman going down with a torn ACL. Yet they still have the obvious advantage of Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as the head coach, a duo that have proven their ability to lead New England through adversity time and again.
Player to watch: Jay Cutler, QB, Dolphins -- The Dolphins signed Cutler to replace Tannehill because of his familiarity with head coach Adam Gase. Cutler had one of his best NFL seasons in 2015 when Gase was his offensive coordinator in Chicago with the Bears.
Impact rookie: Zay Jones, WR, Bills -- After trading Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams, who signed former Bills receiver Robert Woods in the offseason, and the retirement of Anquan Boldin, Buffalo thrust Jones into the starting receiver role. The former East Carolina receiver is the FBS all-time leader in both career and single-season receptions. Jones had an excellent preseason and, as Buffalo's top wideout, he is a strong candidate to be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Coach on the hot seat: Todd Bowles, Jets -- The Jets have become the NFL's definition of dysfunction and have been accused of tanking even before the season begins. They have plenty of talent on defense, but the offensive side of the ball leaves a lot to be desired. The Jets do not appear capable of improving on last year's 5-11 record, which could mean Bowles will be out of a job at season's end.
Falling: Jets -- New York gutted their roster in the offseason and are going with 38-year-old Josh McCown as the starting quarterback. McCown has a 2-20 record as a starter since 2014, but Bowles said he gives the Jets the best chance to win. With Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg as the other two quarterbacks, that is probably true, but the Jets also do not have a receiver with more than 42 career receptions.
Rising: Brandin Cooks, WR, Patriots -- The loss of Edelman will be Cooks' gain in New England. Cooks had a career-high 84 receptions in 2015, but could eclipse that this year now that Edelman is on the shelf. Edelman caught 98 passes last year, but for only 1,106 yards. Cooks has much more big-play potential and a 100-catch, 1,500-yard season is well within his reach.
Circle this game on the schedule: Dolphins at Patriots, Week 12, Nov. 26 -- The Dolphins and Patriots play each other twice in a three-week span, beginning with Thanksgiving weekend in Foxborough. The Dolphins will be coming off a bye and, if they are within striking distance of the Patriots by Week 12, will need to win at New England in order to have a shot of ending the Patriots' streak of division titles.
Predicted order of finish:
New England 14-2 (No. 1 seed, AFC champion)
New York 3-13